Gears of War has always flirted with the status of a serious wartime drama, somersaulting around the edges of shell-shocked tragedy like a man trying to land a kill with a sawed-off shotgun.
Famously, that back-and-forth is built right into the aesthetic. Epic's characters are hulking, worn-edged slabs of shouty machismo, but the world they fight for is an evocative neo-classical ruin, all fluting iron and damaged marble.
The switch-ups in tone can be breath-taking. You'll be shaking your head dutifully at some or other outburst of testosterone, and then, without warning - a city full of ash corpses that flake away to nothing at the slightest touch. Or a man tortured to the point of suicide. It's troublesome yet oddly charming, as though the writers were falling under the art team's mournful spell.
Set during the initial Locust assault on Sera's humans, Gears of War 3 DLC pack RAAM's Shadow presents an opportunity to get to grips with these lingering ghosts, tracing the trilogy's sporadically manifest war trauma to its root. A three-hour jaunt through the beleagured city of Ilima, it features Gears of War 2's Tai and the original's Lieutenant Kim - characters responsible for some of the trilogy's darkest moments - along with a playable General RAAM. But it's an opportunity Epic squanders.
Also starring the cigar-chewing Barrick and new character Valeria, the pack's Zeta Squad is a joyless, depthless grab-bag of nods to games past. The humourless Kim's personal struggle with RAAM ought to be the lynchpin, building up to the events of Gears 1, but it's only really played upon in the final cutscene. Valeria is a cipher whose sole contribution to the plot is shoving somebody out of the way, and Tai is basically Legolas from Lord of the Rings, trotting out pseudo-spiritual one-liners in the blindingly obvious vein. (Epic does, in fairness, try to have fun with this, but too often there's a sense that you're meant to take him seriously.)
Next to this parade of non-entities, Delta Squad looks like something out of Mass Effect. Above all, you begin to realise just how much Gears needs Marcus Fenix to bring everything together, his scowling, cynical tenacity bridging the gap between pulp silliness and melancholy. Similarly out of love with the Coalition of Organised Governments, Barrick has a try at being surrogate Fenix, but fudges it by leering over Valera's arse.
None of this would matter hugely if the battling stood up to what's come before, but RAAM's Shadow feels watered-down here too. It dances to the same beat as the Gears 3 campaign - alternating interior with exterior play, corridor crawls with arena battles - but the components don't flow together convincingly, and the set pieces lack inspiration. Enemy and cover distribution rarely gets you thinking hard; most of the bigger battles can be won by peek-shooting, while confined brawls are a mess of repeat revivals and shotgun jousting.
Four player co-op is supported, but where the main campaign managed to make room without losing coherence and personality, RAAM's Shadow spreads its props too thin. The levels themselves feel like they're cobbled together from old parts (they probably are), though the school you visit an hour in has its moments. The pack's taste for grid-built layouts becomes an asset here, giving rise to some Escher-esque flourishes; at one point, discoloured ceiling tiles taper disconcertingly into the distance. Shame all this occurs in the context of another find-the-Wretch episode.
After mincing Grubs for a few in-game hours, it's refreshing to step into the shoes of the all-powerful RAAM - his quest to fill Ilima with Seeders and, thus, Kryll runs parallel to Zeta's refugee hunt, the perspective shifting from one to the other. Accompanied by a pair of souped-up Maulers and an Elite Theron Guard (controlled by co-op partners, should you have any), RAAM makes short work of COG resistance on anything below Insane difficulty.